Its Effect on Social Workers and Their Clients
by: Hannah Fiske
June 24th, 2002
Since the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity
Reconciliation Act, which included Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), was
enacted in 1996, the number of welfare recipients has declined by nearly 57%, according to
a recent release from Health and Human Services. Between October and December 2001, the
report states, the national number of recipients continued to decline slightly. Trends at
individual state levels varied, however, with 37 states reporting caseload increases. This
year, as policy makers wage a debate over the details involved in the mandatory
reauthorization of the welfare program, the focus of many in the helping professions has
been on the needs of individuals and families stricken by povertythose who depend on
government assistance for survivaland the best methods to assist them in becoming
financially independent and self-sufficient.
The welfare program, as it is known today, has roots in TANF, the
federal entitlement program that preceded it. TANF basically changed the entitlement
nature of the program and made it a block grant to states, with a fixed and limited amount
of money available to each state based on a historic level of funding, explains
William Waldman, MSW, visiting professor and executive-in-residence in the School of
Social Work at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick. Over the past
20 years or so, he adds, emphasis on the obligation of those receiving welfare to work has
increased, reflected in waves of welfare reform promoting various employment programs for
Not only did the new law provide states with increased freedom in
allocating block-grant funds, according to Waldman, but it also included work
requirements, a lifetime length of recipiency of five years maximum, and strong sanctions
against welfare recipients deemed noncompliant with program requirements. Permitting
states to exempt only 20% of their welfare population, the law exempted from lifetime and
work requirements the disabled, older adults, and those who care for a developmentally
disabled family member, he notes. This law was controversial, and many social
workers didnt support it, Waldman adds. They were concerned about what
would happen to poor families if states were no longer obligated to support them.
The Personal Responsibility Act represented a variety of changes,
mirroring a public policy trend toward devolution, Waldman continues. It is an
extension of the idea that the federal government doesnt do a good job of running
large social welfare programsthat it inhibits flexibility and creativity that could
be applied at the state or local level, he explains. Despite the controversy
surrounding it, the new law was passed at the height of the Clinton administrations
and the Senates push to balance the budget, Waldman adds, based on the concept that
block grants could assist in this effort by providing certitude about federal welfare
For the first five years of its existence, the program appeared to be successful, with
welfare rolls decreasing by more than one-halfbut to what should this success be
attributed? Was it the economy or the programs strong message about work and
personal responsibility? Waldman believes the answer is found in both explanations.
The power of the public message could not be underestimated. As a society, we said,
Welfare should not be a way of life. It is wrong for people to stay on welfare
forever, he says. We have an expectation that able-bodied people need to
be personally responsible.
As the economy slows, however, many social and welfare workers fear the
impact will be felt most strongly by welfare families who struggle to make ends meet, even
during the best of economic times. We have had this program in place for five years
during a booming economy with the best of employment possibilities, explains Mimi
Abramovitz, DSW, professor of social work and social welfare policy at Hunter College
School of Social Work in New York City and member of the National Association of Social
Workers (NASW) Blue Ribbon Panel on Economic Security. Now food pantries and
homeless shelters are turning people away. Many women who found work and left welfare are
telling us they cant make ends meet. They are skipping meals and cant afford
to buy clothing for their children.
Waldman agrees that decreased opportunities for low-skilled workers
contribute to the difficulties faced by people attempting to become self-sufficient and
leave welfare. In the 90s, there was a proliferation of jobs available, but
the market has changed. If people want to be successful, they will need to improve their
job skills, he says. We need, as a country, to change our approach toward
human-capital investment by providing training and education. Rather than simply
increasing the number of work hours required each week of welfare recipientsone of
the changes currently being debated by law makers and policy makershe believes the
United States would benefit from investing more money in training its workforce. The
truth is, he adds, that for people to get off welfare, it is important to
spend a little more money per person to invest in support systems, such as childcare and
American culture is infused with strong work-related values, Waldman
notes. The nations citizens not only tend to care deeply about their own careers,
but also to reward those whose work they admire. As we move further into an age of
globalization, developing and training the nations workforce will become
increasingly essential to the nations well-being, he says. Having a skilled
workforce is critical if America is to be and remain competitive in a truly global
economy, he says. The idea of investing in and training individuals to
participate in the labor market will be an economic advantage and benefit the entire
The ability to climb out of poverty is contingent not just on financial earnings, but also
on the support systems that help families succeed in their efforts, explains Sandra K.
Danziger, PhD, associate professor of social work and director of the Michigan Program on
Poverty and Social Welfare Policy, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. When people
enter the workforce, they continue to need health coverage and childcare. Many of them are
also eligible for food stamps and the Earned Income Tax Credit, but they dont
necessarily receive the assistance they need to access them, she says. All of
those components help low-income families get by, especially if they are in low-wage jobs
without benefits, such as health insurance. The noncash benefits that are part of the
system are important, essential elements of programs that help people move out of
Welfare recipients who are able to move forward and eventually go off
welfare may need to maintain eligibility for benefits once they begin working, explains
Danziger. Many states, she continues, offer earned income disregards that allow recipients
to continue receiving reduced cash benefits while working. She believes it is equally
essential, however, to maintain childcare, food stamps, and other transitional programs
while recipients build work experience and begin the process of becoming self-sufficient.
In addition to childcare for young children, critical for many families
is assistance for parents with older children, who frequently fall between the cracks,
according to Jan L. Hagen, PhD, ACSW, also a member of the NASW Blue Ribbon Panel and
professor at the School of Social Welfare, State University of New York at Albany. She
recalls meeting a woman who was working two jobs, attending school, and had been able to
go off welfare. Her adolescent son began getting into mischief, and this
womans only choice was to cut back on one of her jobs, drop out of school, and go
back on welfare to provide him with the after-school supervision he needed, she
says. Her son needed the security of knowing his mother was home and looking out for him.
To provide him with the stability he needed, however, the woman was forced to sacrifice an
opportunity to increase her skills as well as the familys income. This situation
exemplifies the reason that we need to have supports in place for all
families, she says, particularly for single mothers who are trying to work and
take care of their children at the same time.
Barriers to Employment
Childcare and job-skills training are two obvious barriers to employment, but, for a large
percentage of welfare recipients, there may exist hidden barriers identifiable only
through a thorough screening and assessment program. At the University of Michigan,
researchers have followed cases of welfare recipients since 1997, documenting what
Danziger calls a rich array of potential problems. These issues, she says,
correlate to poverty, single motherhood, and the ability to succeed in the workplace and
include physical- and mental-health problems, substance abuse, and domestic violence.
We are consistently finding, for example, that this is a population with a high rate
of clinical depression, she explains. This is a disorder most people could be
diagnosed with and treated for if they had access to adequate healthcare.
Problems arising from hidden barriers are inadequately addressed within the current
welfare system, according to Danziger. These issues, which would not come as a
surprise to most social workers, are associated with women who remain on welfare and are
unable to move ahead in the workplace, she says. When people have multiple
barriers, they spend less time in the workforce, which means they also have less of a
chance of succeeding in the welfare-to-work process. If the barrier is identified
and they are exempted, they risk remaining on welfare indefinitely; if the barrier remains
unidentified, they risk being sanctioned and forced out of the welfare system, she adds.
Hagen explains that several states, including Tennessee and Utah, have
implemented more elaborate case management systems and are developing improved assessment
programs. Some programs, she adds, employ social workers to whom caseworkers can refer
clients for more detailed assessments. Many frontline welfare workers, who have
experience with the initial round of the work-first programs, have been vocal about their
desire to address and treat hidden barriers, she explains. They want to design
more complex programs that allow an individualized, needs-based approach. Simply
increasing work requirements and striving to move recipients out of the system as quickly
as possible without addressing the issues of hidden barriers, she adds, may have a
negative impact on states ability to provide service-oriented programs.
On the Front Line
Those hired prior to 1996 to work on the front lines in welfare were basically
trained to assess clients eligibility by processing them to determine their income
and expenses, according to Cynthia Woodside, senior government relations associate at the
NASW. With the advent of the 1996 welfare reforms, the nature of the job changed
substantially. They were no longer just checking to determine whether someone was
eligible for the program, but were really charged with screening for barriers, helping
people find jobs, and being a job coach once they found one, she says. The
workforce was not sufficiently trained to take on these responsibilities, and they
recognized this fact.
The result has been that frontline caseworkers often struggle to perform
all of their new duties, according to the findings of a national task force organized by
Woodside to study the impact of TANF on the welfare workforce and to advocate for
investing in improving the welfare workforce as a critical component of improving services
and outcomes for welfare participants and their families. Although caseloads have
fallen dramatically in most parts of the country, Woodside adds, the actual
workload has increased for most frontline workers. Increased responsibilities and a
lack of training to fulfill them have led to a high rate of turnover among frontline
welfare employees, she continues, which means welfare beneficiaries rarely receive all of
their benefits. In fact, research has shown that as many as one-third to one-half of
families who leave welfare for work do not receive work-support benefitssuch as
Medicaid or food stampsfor which they are eligible, according to Woodside.
Improving the training provided to the welfare workforce would ensure better service
for people forced to access the system, she says. The majority of welfare
workers, however, continue to indicate that they are not receiving the training they
They are, for the most part, not trained in the helping
professions, Hagen adds. The system lacks people with an understanding of the
multiple problems that families encounter, as well as the ability to detect obvious or
hidden barriers. However, TANF has provided states with an opportunity to offer more
in-depth assistance to those in need by forcing the system as a whole to become more
service-oriented, she continues. The problem here is that we are asking welfare
workers to perform a job that is far different from the one for which they were hired, so
we need to provide them with the training they need to succeed, she says. To be most
effective, Hagen advises, this training should include basic information about human
behavior and problems, such as domestic violence and substance abuse. Also needed is
training in communication skills to enable welfare workers to conduct interviews
responsive to clients. They need to understand how these issues manifest
themselves, she explains, as well as their impact on peoples lives and
ability to engage in employment.
Trends in Welfare Reform
The recent decline in the economy, exacerbated by the events of September 11 and the war
on terrorism, has been mirrored by a slowing trend in the decrease of welfare caseloads.
Many in the field find this situation a cause for concern, worrying that a false sense of
security may lead Congress to approve welfare reauthorization with potential to fall short
of the nations future needs. The states will not receive increases for
inflation in their block grants, so, in a sense, they will have even less money than
before, Hagen predicts.
Although she recognizes that most states have been creative in their use
of federal funds to provide services for welfare recipients, Hagen is concerned about how
an increase in the number of required work hours would affect individual programs.
It wont help the recipients, she says, and will place a tremendous
burden on the states to meet their increased needs. Additionally, welfare recipients
forced to work 40 hours weekly in a world where most full-time employees work only 37.5
hours may find it difficult to become recertified for benefits unless welfare offices
offer extended hours. A lack of attention to barrier assessment and work supports could
also result in decreased gains within the system, according to Danziger. Movement
from welfare to work is slowing in states where the recession has hit, she says.
Many welfare workers are finding it difficult to serve clients with such
For more information on welfare reform, visit the NASW Web site at www.socialworkers.org/advocacy/welfare/default.asp.
is a staff writer at
Social Work Today.
Social Work Today
is a biweekly news and recruitment magazine for social workers.
to subscribe to this free publication.